Buses, the Other Public Transportation Crisis

The New York City Subway system has been making headlines for over a year because of a deluge of lengthy delays, nearly deadly accidents and a state general decline. The riding public, journalists and politicians have become laser focused on both the daily beat of delays and on the larger structural problems that are behind them. In response, Andrew Cuomo declared that the Subway was in a State of Emergency in the summer of last year. Work has since begun on the Subway Action Plan, which aims to stabilize service for six million passengers that depend on the Subway every day. The Subway is not however the only transportation mode in New York City that is in crisis.

Obscured by recent coverage of the Subways are severe problems that plague New York City’s buses that have been growing for years. Since 2010, Subway ridership has exploded, growing at a rate faster even than the expanding population of New York City. However by 2010, Bus ridership was already two years into a steady decline that has continued unabated. Buses, the often forgotten and derided cousin of the Subway, carry almost two million passengers every weekday on a network that puts over 95% of New York households within a quarter of a mile of a bus stop. Buses are a lifeline for the disabled and for New Yorkers who live outside of the reach of the Subway system; a lifeline that is increasingly failing those who depend on it.

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NYC local bus in Queens

While the Subway crisis is born out of years of deferred maintenance and associated infrastructural decline, the factors contributing to the deterioration in the quality of bus service are not entirely under the MTA’s control. Buses are by nature dependent upon the conditions of the streets they operate on. Though pavement quality and construction can cause breakdowns and delays, I am referring primarily to automobile and truck traffic, which has markedly increased in the last ten years. Increased population and the rise of for hire vehicles driving for Uber and Lyft are two significant contributors to an increase in cars on the road and a decrease in speeds for all vehicles trapped in a citywide stranglehold.

A bus is one of the most efficient means of transport in a dense city like New York. A bus carrying up to 70 passengers uses the same road space as three single occupancy cars. However, if a bus is trapped in traffic, its efficiency is diminished and riders will ditch it for taxis, which further exacerbates the problem. In New York, overall bus speed decreased 6% from 2016 to 2017 to just 7 mph. New York buses are officially the slowest of any city in the United States.

There are numerous ways that bus service can be improved in all five boroughs and at a fraction of the price of Subway upgrades and extensions. Cities around the world can serve as a model and a roadmap for how bus service in New York can be improved using both hi and lo-tech methods, which will each make a huge difference for millions of daily bus riders.

Congestion Pricing

Adopting a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan’s Central Business District would go a long way towards speeding up all traffic in the borough. However, there may be unintended consequences for traffic conditions in other boroughs as cars and trucks drive further to circumvent Manhattan tolling. While all bus service improvements require some degree of political support, Congestion Pricing is perhaps the most contentious, its success reliant on obstinate upstate politicians and New York’s transportation regressive mayor.

Painted Bus Lanes

There are very few miles of “bus only” painted lanes on New York City streets. Those streets that do dedicate space to buses suffer from a lack of enforcement. Delivery trucks and even NYPD police cars are some of the worst offenders, frequently parking in bus only lanes, belying their usefulness. Buses in New York require more dedicated space so that they are not choked by normal traffic. But, this can only be effective if bus lanes are enforced and if official vehicles play by their own rules and stay out of the way.

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Bus only lane in Washington DC

Traffic Signal Priority

Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) is a one of the more technologically advanced methods for improving bus service that can make a large impact. Censors mounted at intersections communicate with buses as they progress along their route. If a bus is close to a light that is about to turn red, TSP will keep it green or yellow long enough for the bus to pass. At a red light, TSP will turn lights that govern bus lanes green before lights for other vehicles so that buses can get a head start and avoid getting cut off by turning cars. Currently, there are only a handful of TSP equipped intersections in New York. Expansion throughout the city will require close coordination between the NYC Department of Transportation, which controls the streets, and the MTA, which runs the buses.

All Door Boarding

Perhaps the most important proposal for improving New York’s bus service is the implementation of all door boarding on all buses. With the exception of Select Bus Service, passengers still must line up on the curb, step on to the bus and dip their Metrocard one by one by one. It is an incredibly cumbersome process that adds significant time to every bus trip. On crowded lines, passengers will often resort to using the bus back door to avoid the crowded front, neglecting to pay their fare in the process.

It is unsurprising that the prospect of allowing passengers to board at all doors, without anyone to ensure that a fare is paid, causes the MTA serious consternation. However, cities like San Francisco that have recently switched to all door boarding have actually seen a decrease in fare evasion. Similarly Select Bus Service, with off-board fare collection and all door entry, has demonstrated lower levels of evasion than normal lines. The Transit Workers Union is even in support because disputes over fare evasion are a leading cause of assaults on bus operators. Taking away fare-policing responsibilities from bus operators will surely result in fewer employee injuries.

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All door boarding on the B44 Select Bus Service route in NYC

 

Redrawing the Bus Network

Many bus lines have followed the same street route for decades. Because of changing population and work patterns, buses may not be operating as efficiently as they could be. Further, some bus routes follow circuitous paths with twists and turns that add distance and time to trips that would be better served if they were straightened out.

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B61 bus map, showing its circuitous route

Continue reading “Buses, the Other Public Transportation Crisis”

A Good Month for Transit

January 2018 proved to be a pretty good month for transportation in New York City if for absolutely nothing else. As I discussed in a previous blog post, Andy Byford started as president of New York City Transit (NYCT). In interviews and press conferences so far, he has demonstrated a fluency with the nuances of transit as well as a high degree of care for the riding public. Elsewhere, the R211 subway car contract was awarded at long last and encouraging details regarding Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan Congestion Pricing plan were made public.

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R211 Mock-Up on display at 34th Street Hudson Yards station.

R211

The R211 Subway Car contract, a project that I worked on at the MTA for two and a half years between 2015 and 2017, was awarded to Kawasaki Rail Car (KRC) at the MTA board on January 24th. If all option orders are exercised, KRC will deliver 1,612 cars to NYCT that will operate in the B Division (lettered lines). The R211 is different from any subway car class currently in operation in the NYC Subway because they will be the first subways in the United States with open gangways. Open gangways will allow passengers to safely pass between cars and distribute themselves better throughout the length of a train. Because of this, passengers will be able to board and alight faster, which in turn decreases train dwell time in stations.

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Mock-Up of R211 Open Gangway on display at 34th Street Hudson Yards station. (Photo Credit: Metro US)

Open gangways are not the only New York City first to be found on the R211 cars. They will also be the first NYC Subway cars to be fully equipped with CCTV in the passenger compartment. Both of these firsts, though exciting, are a reminder of how far behind the times public transportation is in New York and in the United States. Open gangways have been utilized by transportation agencies in Europe and Asia for decades. As for CCTV, it is troubling to learn that subway cars, which carry millions of passengers every year, lack a basic element of security infrastructure that is already used in New York by everyone from bodega employees to dog owners.

Congestion Pricing Follow-Up

The Fix NY panel, assembled by Governor Cuomo, released its initial proposal for congestion pricing in Manhattan’s Central Business District. Rather than placing tolling on every block, as Cuomo suggested could be done in comments made earlier in the month, all entries by cars, trucks and ride-sharing vehicles would be subject to a toll upon entry to Manhattan south of 60th Street. As the New York Times writes:

Drivers who enter a zone that stretches from 60th Street south to the Battery could be charged $11.52 during peak commuting hours, while trucks would have to pay $25.34. Passengers using ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft, which have contributed significantly to the traffic problems, could face a $2 to $5 per-ride surcharge.

This is a proposal similar to the one promoted by former Department of Transportation traffic engineer Sam Schwartz, which could be very effective in reducing traffic in and around Manhattan’s busiest streets. Congestion Pricing is not however without its critics. Politicians from New York’s far flung and transit starved neighborhoods, such as those in eastern Queens, are critical of the impact these tolls could have on constituents that rely on their cars. However, as a study by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign shows, there is not a single district in the city where 10 or more percent of residents drive into Manhattan’s CBD and would therefore be subject to Congestion Pricing tolling. Even in areas where driving forms a significant portion of the commuting mode share total, few of those rides actually end in Manhattan. This study makes for another piece in a convincing argument for why Congestion Pricing should be instituted. Though a small minority of New Yorkers may pay more, as some politicians are crying, an exponentially greater number will benefit from less traffic, better air quality, faster buses and more money for public transportation.

Two Posts in One Today: Andy Byford and Congestion Pricing

Today I address two topics. The first is the arrival of Andy Byford at New York City Transit. The second is a brief explanation of Congestion Pricing and of a related recent development from Governor Cuomo.

Andy Byford

Today is somewhat of an exciting day for public transportation in New York City. Andy Byford, previously CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), started his first day of work as President of New York City Transit (NYCT) with a “flawless” ride on the 4 train. His impressive resume also includes time in management positions with transport agencies in London and Sydney prior to his mostly successful 5-year stint at the helm of the TTC. Though we cannot underestimate the challenges of running any large transportation agency, Byford likely faces his toughest test in New York where the buses and subways are in disarray.

Andy Byford, the chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission, rides on a so-called open gangway train in Toronto.
Andy Byford riding the rails in Toronto (Image Credit: Toronto Star)

At the TTC (North America’s third largest transit agency after NYC and Mexico City) Byford oversaw a significant management shakeup, a major subway line extension and an increase in customer satisfaction. He has made it a point in his career to communicate with customers and treat them in an honest and dignified manner, demanding agency staff to do the same. He has already stated that customer satisfaction will be a central tenet of his work in New York as well.

I am excited for him to get started. Negotiating relationships with Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, labor unions, existing upper management and the riding public is no easy task. But, his attitude and experience leads me to be cautiously optimistic that he will find success here in New York.

Congestion Pricing

Congestion Pricing has become a popular topic of late in New York. Though cities around the globe including London and Stockholm already employ versions of Congestion Pricing in their Central Business Districts (CBDs) to great effect, New York is a late arrival to the table. For years, transportation planning guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz has shopped around his Move NY plan. But, it was mostly ignored by politicians and never quite made it into mainstream discussion.

The idea behind Congestion Pricing in New York, as detailed in Schwartz’s Move NY Plan, is to put tolls on four East River Crossings that are currently free for drivers and at other entrances to Manhattan’s CBD (south of 60th Street). Charging drivers a fee for entering some of New York’s busiest and most congested areas will first and foremost reduce the number of cars on the road and switch many car trips over to public transportation. New Yorkers can expect myriad improvements to their quality of life from having less cars on the road: cleaner air, fewer traffic accidents and faster moving city buses. Further, it addresses issues of equity that arise from charging no tolls on the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. While a relatively wealthy car-owning individual can cross those bridges for free, lower income and car-less individuals and families are forced to pay multiples of $2.75 to make the same trip on public transportation. Money from the Congestion Pricing tolls, estimated at $1.5 billion per year, will be invested directly into public transportation, which ties the whole plan together.

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Manhattan Traffic

To me and to many others in the transportation planning community, Congestion Pricing in New York is an absolute slam dunk. However, the only players blocking the lane right now are a minority of drivers in the City that hold disproportionate sway over the future of this issue. Politicians in New York and throughout the United States are generally loathe to institute any measures that negatively impact drivers. Even self-described progressive Mayor de Blasio called Congestion Pricing “regressive,” instead opting for a “Millionaires Tax” to achieve similar transportation funding goals.

Congestion pricing has surprisingly found a somewhat willing ally in Governor Cuomo. Though his talk so far on the subject his lacked details, I am glad to see that he is at least willing to consider the subject unlike the Mayor. Yesterday however he offered a small glimpse into his thinking, which gives me angst about what form Cuomo’s Congestion Pricing might take. He said, “We have the ability with technology to put tolling anywhere in the city…” not just in the places advocated by the Move NY plan.

This statement makes me nervous because it circumvents the holistic approach of placing tolls only at entrances to Manhattan’s CBD and takes Congestion Pricing down to a block by block level. At that level, it is easy to see how blocks and neighborhoods in Manhattan and elsewhere could wield their political clout to keep tolls out. Wealthier car-owning individuals and families could clear the way for their automobiles, straddling less well-off blocks and neighborhoods with the tolling burden. If tolls are indeed placed anywhere in the City as Cuomo suggests, New York risks yoking the poor with the negative impacts of a Congestion Pricing plan that was meant to help them and misses out on the benefits that a coordinated tolling effort could bring.

 

Transportation Thoughts for 2018

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New Jersey entrance to Hudson River Rail Tunnels (Photo Credit: Amtrak)

Gateway Cancelled?

Just before the New Year, the Federal Transportation Administration denied that a funding agreement made between Governors Christie and Cuomo of New Jersey and New York and the Federal government for covering the costs of new train tunnels between the two states ever existed. Though the FTA under the anti-transportation Trump regime alleges that such an agreement is ‘fake news,’ the Obama administration had indeed promised to pay for half of the Gateway project, with NJ and NY making up 25 percent each. Christie and Cuomo had made positive progress in recent weeks towards fulfilling their states’ costs. However, without major contributions from the Federal government, it will be hard to pay for the estimated $25 billion price tag.

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Map of Gateway Program Projects

This denial is par for the course for the Trump administration, which seems to be in a competition with itself to see whether it can make the country implode from the inside or be destroyed from the outside first. The Gateway Project encompasses infrastructure work that is vital not just to the economy of the New York Metropolitan region, but the entire country. Without two new tunnels under the Hudson River , NJ Transit and Amtrak train throughput will be cut from nearly 30 trains into and out of Penn Station per hour to just 8 overall, when one of the existing tunnels is inevitably closed for Sandy-related repairs.

I have little optimism that the current administration will come to whatever senses it has and agree to fund this vital project. Hopefully the existing tunnels (and all of us) survive the remainder of the Trump years.

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The Red Hook houses, Brooklyn’s largest NYCHA campus

Subway to Red Hook?

One of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Proposals for 2018 is for the MTA to study transportation options for Red Hook Brooklyn, including the possibility of an underwater subway tunnel from Manhattan. For starters, building better transportation for Red Hook, one of the most transit starved neighborhoods in Brooklyn in spite of its relative closeness to job centers, is a great and long overdue idea. However, sending the MTA in the direction of an underwater subway tunnel from Lower Manhattan is silly for many reasons.

First, as a recent NY Times article described in great detail, the MTA pays more per subway track mile than any other transportation agency in the world by far. With Gateway tunnel proposals eclipsing $20 billion, an even longer tube from Manhattan to Brooklyn would be wildly expensive. Second, only 10,000 people live in Red Hook, which for its geographic size and by New York standards is small. The cost of building one subway stop there is just too high. Third, pairing a one stop subway line with massive commercial and residential development would eventually result in higher prices for thousands of public housing residents in the neighborhood and place more people and investments in a place that is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.

Red Hook undoubtedly deserves better public transportation options. The neighborhood was condemned to isolation when the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was constructed and not much has been done to right that wrong since. But, a new multi-billion dollar subway tunnel is not the answer. I don’t know exactly what that answer is but it could be along the lines of implementing real Bus Rapid Transit or even following through on the BQX light rail line. Indeed the MTA must focus on rehabilitating the assets it currently has rather than chasing the next gubernatorial pipe dream.

People walk between newly erected concrete barricades outside the 3 Times Square building in Times Square where a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians Thursday in New York City
People walk between newly erected concrete barricades outside the 3 Times Square building in Times Square where a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians Thursday in New York City, U.S., May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Bill de Blasio’s Expensive Bollards

In response to a number of hideous terrorist attacks carried out in Berlin, Nice and New York City, among others, that made use of civilian cars and trucks to kill, Mayor de Blasio proposed a $50 million roll-out of bollards intended to mitigate threats to busy pedestrian areas. Though measures to protect citizens from terrorist acts is an important job for city government, it can come at a great cost. That is literally true in this case. In a city where $2-4 billion only buys 1 mile of underground rail tracks, $50 million apparently will be spent on only 1,500 bollards at a cost of around $33,000 per bollard. As many in the transportation community have noted, this is a ridiculous sum for very simple infrastructural elements. Though they are advertised as bollards of a more decorative variety, under the guise of anything but counter terrorism, this would absolutely be cost prohibitive.

As bloggers like Second Avenue Sagas have noted on Twitter, the Mayor’s office should have taken a more critical look at the costs of this project, especially in the aftermath of the NY Times expose on the high costs of MTA work. Further, bollards are generally placed within the pedestrian space that it is meant to protect. Bollards impinge on pedestrian space but do nothing to slow or control the movement of vehicles that they protect the sidewalks from. When cities install bollards, they are choosing a bullet proof vest over gun control. Though bollards can be useful for protecting sidewalk space (and are certainly better than concrete slabs), for $50 million I would hope that the city would look at ways that car traffic can be managed and calmed for everyone’s safety, rather than resorting to boxing pedestrians in.

Not a fan of the Islanders, or their return to Long Island

The 2017-2018 NHL season will be the New York Islanders’ third and last season spent in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena. The team and the fans that give it its name (Long Islanders of course) never really felt at home in the red spaceship that Jay-Z built in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn. This week the team announced that it had won a bid to build a brand new stadium in Belmont, Long Island adjacent to the race track that hosts the third race of the triple crown. The Islanders beat out MLS club NYCFC among others to claim the development rights. Andrew Cuomo was naturally on hand to celebrate the team’s “return home.”

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Rendering of new Islanders Stadium in Belmont, Long Island (Photo Credit: Sterling Project Development / Sterling Project Development via Newsday)

Disclaimer: This is not a post celebrating the Islanders and their 10-mile journey just over the Queens/Nassau border. I could care less about the NHL, the Islanders or the joy their fans feel. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about the negative impacts of building a new stadium in Long Island for transportation and the environment.

The Barclays Center, controversial in its own right, is perhaps the single most most transit accessible stadium in the country save for Madison Square Garden. The stadium rests on top of the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway station, which serves 9 subway lines and is adjacent to the Atlantic Terminal LIRR station. Although the stadium finds itself somewhat out of place at the confluence of some dense residential neighborhoods of three and four story buildings, its transit connections certainly make it a logical place for a venue that attracts thousands of people a night. Unlike stadiums plopped in low-density areas such as Citi Field and MetLife Stadium, surrounded by a sea of parking lots, which attract thousands of drivers, mass transit is the only option for accessing the Barclays Center.

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Barclays Center, Brooklyn

It makes me happy to think about all of the Long Islanders that used to drive to hockey games at the Nassau Coliseum that must take the LIRR to and from the Barclays Center instead. Thousands of cars per game are likely taken off the road, which reduces carbon emissions, congestion around the former stadium and likely decreases instances of drunk driving. Forgive me if I have little sympathy for Long Islanders who were forced out of their cars and onto the train, where you can pregame legally on a commuter rail line that takes you from anywhere in Long Island directly to a brand new stadium in Brooklyn.

The New York Islanders’ new stadium will be at the heart of a mixed use commercial development in Western Long Island, (feet from the Queens border) which will include a mall and a hotel. Though the justification for this development may be described in terms of “economic development” or “identity,” to me it boils down to a rejection of mass transit and desire to continue embracing driving, a defining feature of the Long Island suburban experience. Transit accessibility in Belmont comes in the form of a single terminal stop, which spurs off of the LIRR mainline and has proved woefully inadequate in the past for crowds at the Belmont Stakes. As renderings of the new development show, there will be ample parking for the majority of people who will be driving to Islanders games now, rather than taking the train.

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Site plan for Belmont commercial redevelopment (Photo Credit: Sterling Project Development / Sterling Project Development via Newsday)

As Aaron Gordon of the Village Voice writes:

Currently, the LIRR is Belmont’s only rail connection. A one-stop spur off the Hempstead branch, the service only operates during Belmont meet dates and can only be reached via connection from points west: Jamaica, Atlantic Terminal, and Penn Station. So anyone coming to Belmont via Long Island — as one would expect most Islander fans would — has to go to Jamaica and switch to another train that will run express to Belmont. Not the least convenient experience in the world, but just enough to entice one to drive instead.   

Indeed the Belmont LIRR station is not exactly adequate for dozens of hockey games and other events that attract thousands of visitors throughout the year. Further, as Gordon suggests, the public will likely be picking up the tab for increased LIRR service to the station. Even though this development claims to be privately financed, it is unlikely that the public will be completely off the hook as with other projects of this nature. Gordon continues:

…when the transit authority is turning to its budget reserves to fund subway crisis repairs and spends 17 percent of its budget to pay down debt, it’s worrisome to be handing three local sports ownership groups a blank check for full-time rail service to their door.

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Geographic relation of the Islanders’ new Belmont home to the Barclays Center

Governor Cuomo and Long Islanders alike are thrilled that the Islanders are returning home (though again I would argue they never really left). Brooklyn, which never  embraced the team en masse, will shrug. Team and fan identity aside, this move represents a regression. A regression to car dependence, seas of parking lots and packed roads, which inevitably means more carbon emissions and less money for public transit.

Finally, an L Train Shutdown Mitigation Plan

Everyone in New York City likely knows by now that the Canarsie Tube, which carries the L train under the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, will be shut down for 15 months starting in 2019 for intensive repairs. These repairs are necessitated by damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy over five years ago. This MTA video does a good job of explaining how the tunnel was damaged, how it needs to be rebuilt and at the time, what the options were for doing this work. Since the 15-month full tunnel shutdown was chosen over a 3 year partial closure, we have been waiting with some impatience for the DOT and the MTA to release their plan to mitigate the impacts of the shutdown. On Wednesday, those plans were finally released to the public.

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An MTA worker inspects flooding in the Canarsie Tube after Sandy

The highlights of the DOT and MTA plan include:

  • A 14th Street busway, which will create dedicated space and new facilities for buses while also expanding sidewalks
  • HOV3 on the Williamsburg Bridge
  • A two-way protected bike lane along 13th street (Manhattan’s first)
  • A new ferry route between North Williamsburg and the terminus of the M14 SBS bus in Manhattan
  • Increased service and capacity on the JMZ lines, which run roughly parallel to the L train in Brooklyn, and on the G line, which connects to the L at Metropolitan-Lorimer
  • Subway Enhancements at stations along the JMZ and G lines such as the reopening of closed entrances and adding of turnstiles

Overall, the plan is relatively comprehensive and checks off many items on transportation planners wish lists (though in some cases they may have to settle for budget versions). Ben Kabak of the blog Second Avenue Sagas described it as “not horrible” but also “not great,” ruing DOT’s fear of banning single-occupancy cars from certain streets. What is perhaps most troubling in my opinion are projections that 70-80% of the displaced 225,000 daily L train riders that would normally pass through the Canarsie Tube every day will continue to use the NYC Subway. This has implications for nearly every subway line in the system; in particular those lines serving Northern Brooklyn and that connect at various points with the L: the A, C, G, J, M and Z trains.

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“Service Snapshot” of MTA/DOT L Train shutdown mitigation service
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Manhattan-specific look at 14th Street Busway and 13th Street bike lane

Closed Station Entrances

It is great to see that the MTA will be reopening a number of station entrances along the G, J, M and Z lines, which will improve passenger ingress and egress. Residents and business owners have complained about closed entrances for years; hopefully once L train service is restored, all of the reopened stairs will stay that way.

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A 3 train as seen from the Livonia Avenue L station in Brooklyn

In-System Transfers

The MTA will offer subway riders free transfers between the Broadway G station and the Hewes/Lorimer stations on the JMZ. As the blogger Vanshnookenraggen has proposed, there is an opportunity to transform this geographically proximate yet out-of-system transfer with one that is completely within the NYC Subway network. The Hewes and Lorimer Stations along Broadway would be closed and replaced with a station at Union Street, directly above the G station. Those two stations would then be connected from below ground to above, which would allow for an in-system transfer and likely for better capacity along both lines. This is however an unfunded and unplanned proposal that would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.

There is another free out-of-system transfer the plan proposes, between the Livonia Ave L station and the Junius St 3 station in Brownsville. I was surprised to see however that no work has been done yet on an in-system transfer between the two stations that literally sit one on top of the other, even though that project was approved as part of the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Plan.

Broadway Junction

Separate from the DOT/MTA’s plans for the L train shutdown is a study, recently started by the NYC Economic Development Corporation, to identify economic growth opportunities around the Broadway Junction transportation hub. East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the Broadway Junction station is located, is one of the centerpieces of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing, economic development and job growth plan. Though the title of a NY Times article on this topic suggests potential forthcoming work on the train station itself, the surrounding area has so far been the focus. Hopefully the station, which will become an even more key transfer point for Brooklyn commuters during the L train shutdown as it connects the A, C, J and Z lines with the L, is looked at more closely for renovations and improvements in the coming months beyond what the DOT/MTA plan already proposes.

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A Rockaway Parkway bound L departs Broadway Junction

Going Forward

The plan released Wednesday is not the end all for L train shutdown mitigation. There will be more time for the public and for elected officials to opine on this initial proposal. Hopefully further plans include more restrictions on single occupancy vehicles and other provisions that will improve non-subway transportation options that may shrink the percent of commuters that continue to rely on the subway. The J, M and Z lines, which are currently experiencing some of the highest ridership growth in the city, will be under particular strain. Already proposed subway improvements will help, but there is more to be done to avoid inundating Northern Brooklyn subway lines with displaced L train riders.

 

 

Autonomous Future Pessimism

A recurring article topic for city and transportation related websites such as CityLab and for national news outlets alike is the impending nationwide rollout of Autonomous Vehicles (AV). Although these vehicles are anywhere from 3-5 years away from being introduced in any meaningful quantity and 15 or more years from more widespread adoption, it hasn’t stopped their latest advancements from making headlines. AVs are often presented as panacea for the world’s ills from lack of affordable housing to declining public transportation figures. Yet, what are AVs at their core if not cars? Cars that occupy valuable urban space and pollute the atmosphere; more problem than solution if you ask me.

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Google Car under test in California

Though I run the risk of sounding technophobic, regressive or even like a Luddite, an AV is a car without a driver that has more potential for harm than good. There is nothing Americans love more than their cars (except maybe for their guns in some parts of the country) and will sacrifice their well-being and that of others to accommodate automobiles in different facets of their lives. The automobile is perhaps the most impactful piece of technology upon the shape of the American built environment and the types of lifestyles it begets. Automobiles promote inactivity, release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and contribute to air pollution in cities, especially along congested corridors.

Though AVs are likely to reduce traffic deaths in areas with widespread adoption, it is hard for me to see how they can serve as effective means of transportation when the vast majority will simply be private cars. Just as the rise of TNCs (Transportation Network Company) like Uber and Lyft have increased vehicle miles driven in cities like New York, convenient, fast and driverless vehicles are likely to spur further private car usage growth.

No one, not even the mayors of transit dependent cities like New York, seems to like or like to talk about buses. In New York, almost two billion people ride slow, meandering buses that are suffocated by private car and TNC traffic. For the first time in years, New York’s weekday subway ridership figures took a dive. As transportation funding and performance stagnates and declines in New York and across the United States, it is no wonder that riders are ditching buses and trains for the friendly confines of Uber, Lyft and the like. Though the advent of AVs may offer opportunities for some flexible public transportation options, the low rate of TNC rides that are shared does not make me optimistic.

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Easy Mile autonomous minibus

AVs are expected to be very expensive, so much so that at the start, corporations may be the only entities that can purchase them. This could spell disaster for cities and public transportation users in them because while most private cars will not be autonomous, TNCs like Uber and Lyft could quickly roll out huge fleets of these vehicles. Gains that these services have already made in the last three years will be accelerated with the reduced costs and higher reliability that AVs will likely bring.

If car loving Americans are offered all of the comforts and convenience of a private car, without the need to grab the wheel, will we see another boom of automobile suburbs and single driver(less) commutes? Car ownership rates in the United States are much greater among higher income individuals. These are the same people that could be early adopters of AVs as private cars, replacing their cars on a one to one basis, with no consideration for public transportation.

The Federal Government is, unsurprisingly, taking an extremely deregulatory approach to the technology and its impacts on our lives. States like New York, under the direction of noted car and motorcycle enthusiast Andrew Cuomo, are welcoming AVs and the private companies that are developing them with open arms. New York City’s approach is luckily far more cautious, which pitted Cuomo versus Mayor de Blasio in another battle in the long war between the two of them. As subway and bus riders can attest to, nothing good can come of their constant undercutting of one another.

GAMC Daily news
NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo inaugurating the new Kosciuszko Bridge with a ride in FDR’s car (Source: NY Daily News)

I wish I was more optimistic about how AVs will change our cities and suburbs. Perhaps they will redefine how we get around and open up new opportunities that will reduce carbon emissions, create jobs and lead to healthier lifestyles. However, it’s hard for me to believe that AVs are or will be anything other than expensive, driverless cars. Indeed if it looks like a car, drives like a car, and honks like a car, then it probably is a car. A car that will accelerate the release of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbate sprawl, further income and geographic inequality and strand low income Americans with what’s left of our flailing public transportation system.